Tragic loss or good riddance? The impending demise of traditional scholarly journals

                Condensed version July 16, 1994

                Andrew M. Odlyzko
                AT&T Bell Laboratories

I. Introduction

Traditional printed journals are a comfortable and familiar aspect of scholarly work. They have been the primary means of communicating research results, and as such have performed an invaluable service. However, they are an awkward artifact, although a highly developed one, of the print technology that was the only one available over the last few centuries for large-scale communication. The growth of the scholarly literature, together with the rapidly increasing power and availability of electronic technology, are creating tremendous pressures for change. The purpose of this article is to give a broad picture of these pressures and to argue that the coming changes may be abrupt.

It is often thought that changes will be incremental, with perhaps a few electronic journals appearing and further use of email, ftp, etc. My guess is that change will be far more drastic. Traditional scholarly journals will likely disappear within 10 to 20 years. and the electronic alteratives will be different from current periodicals, even though they may carry the same titles. There are obvious dangers in discontinuous change away from a system that has served the scholarly community well [Quinn]. However, I am convinced that future systems of communication will be much better than the traditional journals. Although the transition may be painful, there is the promise of a substantial increase in the effectiveness of scholarly work. This promise is especially likely to be realized if we are aware of the issues, and plan the evolution away from the present system as early as possible. In any event, we do not have much choice since drastic change is inevitable no matter what our preferences are.

Predictions and comments in this article apply to most scholarly disciplines. However, I will write primarily about mathematics, since I am most familiar with that field and the data that I have is clearest for it. Different areas have different needs and cultures and are likely to follow somewhat different paths in the evolution of their communications.

II. Growth of literature

The impending changes in scholarly publications are caused by the confluence of two trends. One is the growth in the size of the scholarly literature, the other the growth of electronic technology.

The number of scientific papers published annually has been doubling every 10-15 years for the last two centuries [Price]. This is also true of mathematics alone. In 1870 there were only about 840 papers published in mathematics. Today, about 50,000 papers are published annually. The growth was not even, and a more careful look at the statistics shows that from the end of World War 2 until 1990, the number of papers published has been doubling about every 10 years [MR]. Growth has stopped recently, but this is likely to be one of the temporary pauses that have occurred before.

The exponential growth in mathematical publishing has interesting implications. Adding up the numbers in [MR] or simply extrapolating from the current figure of about 50,000 papers per year and a doubling every 10 years, we come to the conclusion that about 1,000,000 mathematical papers have ever been published. What is much more surprising to most people (but is a simple arithmetic consequence of the growth rate) is that almost half of them have been published in the last 10 years. Even if we manage to limit the rate of publication to 50,000 papers per year, we will double the size of the mathematical literature in another 20 years.

Scholarly publishing has some features that sharply differentiate it from the popular fiction or biography markets, and make rapid growth difficult to cope with. Research papers are written by specialists for specialists. Furthermore, scholars do not receive any direct financial remuneration for their papers, and give them to publishers only in order to disseminate the information to other scholars.

Scholarly publishing would be facing a minor inconvenience and not a crisis if the scale of this enterprise were small enough. If a university department were paying $ 5,000 per year for journals, it could deal with several decades of doubling in size and cost of the subscriptions before anything drastic had to be done. However, good mathematics libraries spend well over $ 100,000 per year just for journal subscriptions, and the cost of staff and space is usually at least twice that. Budgets that large are bound to be scrutinized for possible reductions.

III. Technological advances

A doubling of scholarly papers published each decade corresponds to an exponential growth rate of about 7 % per year. This is fast, but nowhere near as fast as the rate of growth in information processing and transmission. Microprocessors are currently doubling in speed every 18 months, corresponding to a growth rate of 60 % per year. Similarly dramatic growth figures are valid for information storage and transmission. For example, the costs of the NSF-supported backbone of the Internet increased by 68% during the period 1988-91, but the traffic went up by a factor of 128 [MacKieV]. The point of citing these figures and those below is that advances in technology have made it possible to transform scholarly publishing in ways that were impossible even a couple of years ago.

Recall that about 50,000 mathematical papers are published each year. If they were all typeset in TeX, then at a rough average of 50,000 bytes per paper, they would require 2.5 GB of storage.

We can now buy a 9 GB magnetic disk for about $ 3,000. For archival storage of papers, though, we can use other technologies, such as optical disks. A disk with a 7 GB capacity that can be written once costs $ 200-300. Digital tapes with 250 GB capacities are expected to become available soon. Thus electronic storage capacity needed for dissemination of research results in mathematics is trivial with today's technology.

We conclude that is it already possible to store all the current mathematical publications at an annual cost much less than that of the subscription to a single journal. What about the papers published over the preceding centuries? Since there are 1,000,000 of them, it would require about 50 GB to store them if they were all in TeX. Conversion of old papers to TeX seems unlikely. However, storage of bitmaps of these papers, compressed with current fax standards, requires less than 1,000 GB. This is large, but it is still less than 150 of the current large optical disks. For comparison, Wal-Mart has a database of over 1,000 GB that is stored on magnetic disks, and is processed intensively all the time.

Within a decade we may have systems for personal computers that can store 1,000 GB. Even before that, university departments will be able to afford storage systems able to store all the mathematical literature. This ability will mean a dramatic change in the way we operate. For example, if you can call up any paper on your screen, and after deciding that it looks interesting, print it out on the laser printer on your desktop, will you need a library?

Communication networks are improving rapidly. Most departments have their machines on Ethernet networks, which operate at almost 10 Mbs (millions of bits per second). Further, almost all universities now have access to the Internet, which was not the case even a couple of years ago. The Internet backbone operates at 45 Mbs, and prototypes of much faster systems are already in operations. Movies-on-demand will mean wide availability of networks with speed in the hundreds of megabits per second. If your local supplier can get you the movie of your choice at the time of your choice for under $ 10 (as it will have to, in order for the system to be economic), then sending over the 50 MB of research papers in your specialty for the last year will cost pennies. Scientists might not like to depend on systems that owe their existence to the demand for X-rated movies, but they will use them when they become available.

Not only have information storage and transmission capacities grown, but the software has become much easier to use. Computerized typesetting systems have become so common that it is rare to encounter a manuscript typed on an ordinary typewriter. Moreover, scholars are increasingly doing their own typesetting. This trend is partially due to cutbacks in secretarial support, but is caused primarily by scholars preferring the greater control and faster execution that they can obtain by doing their own typesetting. With modern technology, doing something is becoming easier than explaining to another person what to do.

Two centuries ago there was a huge gap between what a scholar could do and what the publishers provided. A printed paper was far superior in legibility to hand-written copies of the preprint, and it was cheaper to produce than hiring scribes to make hundreds of copies. Today the cost advantage of publishers is gone, as it is far cheaper to send out electronic versions of a paper than to have it printed in a journal. The quality advantage of journals still exists, but it is rapidly eroding.

IV. Preprints and electronic journals

Advances in technology allow for much more convenient dissemination of information. Preprints have already become the main method in mathematics and many other fields for experts to communicate their latest results among each other. Electronics is making this process much easier. Two approaches are becoming common. One is for departments to set up publicly accessible directories from which anyone can copy the latest preprints via anonymous ftp. The other is to use preprint servers, with scholars sending their preprints to a central database. Wide use of these methods is a great boon to scholars, but it is extremely subversive of journal publications. If I can get a preprint of a published paper for free, why should I (or my library) pay for the journal?

The subversive effect of wide preprint distribution is bound to force changes on the traditional scholarly journals. Moreover, the changes could be sudden. For example, the preprint server that Paul Ginsparg set up for high energy theoretical physics became the standard information dissemination method in that area within one year. It has since been adopted by other fields as well. Such sudden changes are common in high technology areas (as in the dramatic rise in popularity of fax machines, or the catastropic decline of the mainframe) and could occur in journal publishing. During a future financial squeeze at a university, a dean might come to a mathematics department and offer a deal: "Either you give up paper journal subscriptions, or you give up one position." Today such as offer would not be considered seriously, since journals are still indispensable. However, in 10 years or so, once preprints are freely available, giving up the journals is likely to be the preferred response.

Preprints have a deservedly different status than refereed journal publications. However, the new technologies are making possible easy publication of electronic journals by scholars alone. It is just as easy for editors to place manuscripts of refereed papers in a publicly accessible directory or a preprint server as it is to do so for their own preprints. The number of electronic journals is small, but it is rising rapidly.

I expect that scholarly publishing will move to almost exclusively electronic means of information dissemination. This will be caused by the economic push of having to cope with increasing costs of the present system and the attractive pull of the new features that electronic publishing offers.

V. The interactive potential of electronic publications

Because conventional print journals have been an integral part of scholarly life for so long, their inflexibility is often not appreciated. Most mathematical journals are available at about 1,000 research libraries around the world. Even for the scholars at those institutions, access to journals requires a physical trip, often to another building, and is restricted to certain hours. Electronic journals will make access available around the clock from the convenience of the scholar's study. It will also make literature searches much easier. For journals without subscription fees, access will be available from anywhere in the world.

Frank Quinn [Quinn] argues that the reliability of mathematical literature justifies extreme caution in moving away from paper journals, lest we be tempted into "blackboard-style" publishing practices that are common in some fields. He advocates keeping a strong distinction between informal preprint distribution and the formal refereed publications, even in an electronic format. I agree that mathematicians should strive to preserve and enhance the reliability of mathematical literature. However, I feel that Quinn's concerns are largely misplaced, and might serve to keep mathematicians and other scholars from developing better methods for communicating their results. I feel a better solution is to have an integrated system that combines the informal netnews-type postings with preprints and electronic journal publication. Stevan Harnad has been advocating just such a solution [Harnad1], and has coined the terms scholarly skywriting and prepublication continuum to denote the process in which scholars merge their informal communications with formal publications. Where I differ from Harnad is in the form of peer review that is likely to take place. Whereas Harnad advocates a conventional form, I feel that a reviewing continuum that matches the publication continuum is more appropriate.

I will describe the system I envisage as if it were operating on a single centralized database machine. However, this is for convenience only, and any working system would almost certainly involve duplicated or different but coordinated systems. I will not deal with the software aspects of this system, which will surely involve hypertext links, so that a click on a reference or comment would instantly bring up a window with that paper or comment in it.

At the bottom level of future systems, anyone could submit a preprint to the system. There would have to be some control on submissions, but it could probably be minor. Standards similar to those at the Abstracts of the AMS might be appropriate, so that proofs that the Earth is flat, or that special relativity is a Zionist conspiracy, would be kept out. Discussions of whether Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays might be accepted (since there are interesting statistical approaches to this question). There would also be digital signatures and digital timestamping, to provide authentication. The precise rules for how the system would function would have to be decided by experimentation. For example, one feature of the system might be that nothing that is ever submitted could be withdrawn. This would help enforce quality, since posters submitting poorly prepared papers risk having their errors exposed and documented.

Once a preprint was accepted, it would be available to anyone. Depending on subject classification or keywords, notification of its arrival would be sent to those subscribing to alerting services in the appropriate areas. Comments would be solicited from anyone (subject again to some minor limitations), and would be appended to the original paper. There could be provisions for anonymous comments as well as signed ones. The author would have the opportunity to submit revised versions of the paper in response to the comments (or own further work). All the versions of the papers, as well as all the comments, would remain part of the record. This process could continue indefinitely, even a hundred years after the initial submission. Author X, writing a paper that improves an earlier result Y(123) of author Y, would be encouraged to submit a comment to Y(123) to that effect. Even authors who just reference Y(123) would be encouraged to note that in comments on Y(123). (Software would do much of this automatically.) This way a research paper would be a living document, evolving as new comments and revisions were added. This process by itself would go a long way towards providing trustworthy results. Most important, it would provide immediate feedback to scholars. While the unsolicited comments would require evaluation to be truly useful, and in general would not compare in trustworthiness with formal referee reports, they would be better than no information at all. Scholars would be free to choose their own filters for this corpus of preprints and commentary. For example, some could decide not to trust any unrefereed preprint that had not attracted positive comments from at least three scholars from the Ivy League schools.

Grafted on top of this almost totally uncoordinated and uncontrolled system there would be an editorial and refereeing structure. This would be absolutely necessary to deal with many submissions. While unsolicited comments are likely to be helpful in deciding on the novelty and correctness of many papers, they are unlikely to be sufficient in most cases. There is need to assure that all the literature that scholars might rely on is subject to a uniform standard of refereeing (at least as far as correctness is concerned), and at the same time control the load on reviewers by minimizing duplicate work. Both tasks are hard to achieve with an uncoordinated randomized system of commentary. A formal review process will be indispensable. There would have to be editors who would then arrange for proper peer review. The editors could be appointed by learned societies, or even be self-appointed. (The self-correcting nature of science would take care of the poor ones, I expect. We do have vanity presses even now, and they have not done appreciable damage.) These editors could then use the comments that have accumulated to help them assess the correctness and importance of the results in a submissions and to select official referees. (After all, who is better qualified to referee a paper than somebody who had enough interest to look at it and comment knowledgeably on it? It is usually easy to judge someone's knowledge of a subject and thoroughness of reading a manuscript from their comments.) The referee reports and evaluations could be added as comments to the paper, but would be marked as such. That way someone looking for information in homological algebra, say, and who is not familiar with the subject, could set his or her programs to search the database only for papers that have been reviewed by an acknowledged expert or a trusted editorial board. Just as today, there would be survey and expository papers, which could be treated just like all the other ones. As new information accumulated with time, additional reviews of old papers might be solicited as needed, to settle disputes.

The proposal above is designed to work within the confines of what we can expect both technology and ordinary fallible people to accomplish. It would integrate the roles of authors, casual readers, and official referees. The proposed system would allow peers to contribute to scholars' work much better. The main advantage of this proposal is that it would provide a continuum of peer review that more closely matches the publication continuum that is likely to evolve.

VI. The future of publishers, journals, and libraries

It is impossible to predict the date or speed of transition to systems like the one outlined in the previous section, but only because they will be determined primarily by sociological factors. The technology that is necessary for future systems is either already available or will be in a few years. The speed with which this technology will be adopted by scholars will depend on how quickly we are prepared to break with traditional methods in favor of a superior but novel system. For example, how quickly will tenure and promotion committees start accepting electronic publications as comparable to those in traditional journals?

What would be the role of publishers in the projected system? Scholars can run electronic journals themselves, with no financial subsidies or subscription fees, using only the spare capacity of the computers and networks that are provided to them as part of their job. This is the model under which most of the current electronic journals in mathematics operate. There is more work for authors and editors in such a system than with traditional print journals, but advances in technology are decreasing the effort that is required. A major advantage of such a system is that the journal can be available for free anytime everyplace that data networks reach. However, the lack of copy editing that is likely to prevail in such a system may not be acceptable. I expect that what editing assistance might be required will not cost anywhere near what print journals cost, and so might be provided by the authors' institutions. If that happens, electronic journals can also be distributed freely. If such assistance is not provided, then subscription fees will have to be imposed, together with access restrictions to the information. However, to compete successfully with free preprint distribution and free journals, any subscription journals will have to keep their fees low. In any event, I expect that publishers will have to shrink.

Paper journals will have to convert to electronic publication or disappear. The role of paper is likely to be limited to temporary uses, and archival storage will be electronic.

Review papers are likely to play an increasingly important role, but they are written by scholars and can be published in regular electronic journals. On the other hand, short bibliographic reviews, such as are common in Math. Rev. and Zentralblatt, might be replaced by computerized searches, since the entire literature will be available on each scholar's workstation. This might mean the demise of Math. Rev. and Zentralblatt. However, I suspect that they will do well, although they will have to change. They are inexpensive enough that they do not need to offer much extra service to justify their price. There will always be need for classifying papers, ensuring that all significant ones are reviewed, and keeping track of all the changes in the databases. Review journal will have to change. They will need to be accessible electronically, and will most likely be paid for by a site license fee, giving unlimited access to the database to all scholars affiliated with the customer institution. They will provide much more current information than is true today, since there will be no publications delays. The formats of reviews might vary from those used today. The main distinction from today is likely to be the presence of hypertext links from reviews to the papers and the commentaries associated to those papers. Combined with easy electronic access to the primary materials, review journals will then provide all the functions of a specialized library.

What about libraries? They will also have to shrink and change their role. The transition to the new system is likely to be less painful for them than for publishers. There is much more inertia in the library system, with old collections of printed material that will need to be preserved and converted to digital formats. Eventually, though, we are even likely to need very few reference librarians. If the review journals evolve the way I project, they will provide directly to scholars all the services that libraries used to. With immediate electronic access to all the information in a field, with navigating tools, reviews, and other aids, a few dozen librarians and scholars at review journals might be able to substitute for a thousand reference librarians.


This article provides my own personal view of the future of mathematical journals. Few of the observations and predictions are original, and I have freely drawn on the ideas in the papers listed below. I have benefited greatly from extensive email correspondence with Paul Ginsparg and Frank Quinn, and especially with Stevan Harnad. Helpful comments and useful information were provided by Andrew Appel, Robert Badger, Henry Baird, Margaret Baker, Judith Bausch, Rick Becker, Edwin Beschler, Carol-Ann Blackwood, Piotr Blass, Enrico Bombieri, Dan Boneh, Fred Bookstein, Joe Buhler, David Cantor, Lorinda Cherry, Peter Cziffra, Keith Dennis, Howard Dess, Tom Duff, David Elliott, Lloyd Etheredge, Joan Feigenbaum, Janet Fisher, Walter Gautschi, Sergei Gelfand, Mark Ginsburg, Andrew Granville, Dan Grayson, Albert Greenberg, Martin Groetschel, Eric Grosse, Jean-Claude Guedon, Leo Guibas, Richard Guy, Phil Hanlon, Joachim Heinze, Dennis Hejhal, Ross Hoffman, Andrew Hume, Carol Hutchins, Patrick Ion, Lee Jaffe, David Johnson, Arnoud de Kemp, Martin Kesselman, Jane Kister, Steve Krantz, Bob Kurshan, Jeff Lagarias, Leslie Lamport, Susan Landau, Jim Landwehr, Joshua Lederberg, Silvio Levy, Bernhard Lewerich, Jack van Lint, Dick Lipton, Daniel Loeb, Bruce Long, Barbara Longhurst, Joachim Luegger, Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, Dan Madden, Clyde Martin, John Martindale, Yossi Matias, Brendan McKay, Norman Megill, Jill Mesirov, Jim Muckerheide, Gary Mullen, Jakob Nielsen, Paul Odlyzko, Dick Palais, Tony Parsons, Paul Pedersen, Arno Penzias, Chris Phillips, Rob Pike, Frank Quinn, Barry Rackner, Stanislaw Radziszowski, Arden Ruttan, Arden Ruttan, Chih-Han Sah, Ann Schaffner, Wilfried Schmid, Claus Schnorr, Bob Sedgewick, Mark Sheingorn, Daniel Sleator, Neil Sloane, Warren Smith, Wolfram Sperber, David Stodolsky, Daniel Szyld, Jean Taylor, Bill Thurston, Flemming Topsoe, Martha Tucker, Marc VanHeyningen, Hal Varian, Edward Vielmetti, Leo Waaijers, B. Wegner, Gene Wells, Joerg Winkler, Scott Wolpert, Dave Wuolu, and Jeff Young.


Date: Sun, 17 Jul 1994 19:41:03 -0400 (EDT)
From: Stevan Harnad 
Subject: Demise of Traditional Scholarly Journals
To: AESJ-L@ALBNYVM1.BITNET (Assoc El Sch Jnls), (Biblioth. Fr. LIB), ejvc-l@KENTVM.KENT.EDU,
 irvc-l@BYRD.MU.WVNET.EDU, pacs-l@uhupvm1.BITNET (Pacls-l list)

Below is the shorter version of a very interesting paper by Andrew
Odlyzko of Bell Labs on which the author is inviting comments. -- SH

From: (Andrew Odlyzko)
Date: Sun, 17 Jul 94 06:46 EDT
Subject:  Revised version of "Tragic loss ..."

This revision consists of a 430-line condensed version, to be submitted
for publication in Notices of the American Mathematical Society. The
full 2830-line version provides data and arguments to support many of
the assertions made in the short version and is retrievable through
Mosaic at URL:

Alternative retrieval instructions appear at the end of this message.

Comments are invited.  Andrew Odlyzko 

For those without access to Mosaic, ftp access is available on machine  After logging in as "anonymous" and giving the full 
email address as password, do

  cd netlib/att/math/odlyzko
  get tragic.loss.Z

to obtain a copy of the (compressed) version.

To obtain the revision through email, send the message

  send tragic.loss from att/math/odlyzko

to  The (uncompressed) file that will be
sent is 194 KB.  If your mailer cannot handle large files, include
in your message the line

  mailsize 40k

if you wish the revision to be sent in chunks of at most 40 KB, say.

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